Saturday, July 13, 2019

"Iancu Dumitrescu: Compositeur de Tissus"

This article is from the Wire archives brilliantly crafted by Philip Clark.  I have added some additional photos for reference.

Iancu Dumitrescu
Iancu Dumitrescu And his wife, composer Ana-Marie Avram
Thesis from Ryan Kirk
Score:  "Utopias (V) for Athens

Ansamblul Hyperion* , Conducerea Muzicală: Iancu Dumitrescu

Iancu Dumitrescu ‎– Grande Ourse / Aulodie Mioritică (Gamma)

Sergiu Celibidache
Iancu Dumitrescu
Edmund Husserl

A scientist of sound and a heretic running amok in the cathedral of contemporary music, Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu and his wife Ana-Maria Avram create shock and awe through their polyphonies of polluted noise.

Iancu Dumitrescu says he prefers not to ponder the dark days of Romania’s communist past, the era that shaped him as a composer and thinker about music. Anger, frustration, grief at the injustice of it all, however, cannot easily be switched off.

“It is hard to express what ‘real communism’ meant,” Dumitrescu explains. “People were led by incompetent men – insensitive to truth – who tried to impose their failings as laws. From this came fraudulent and aberrant behavior that had consequences in all areas of Romanian life.”

His explorations into the fabric of sound make a worryingly broad spectrum of modern composition – from metrosexual minimalism through faux-modernist posturing – feel humdrum and slight, his stubborn intransigence and principled intention nailing precisely why so much recent music conceived for classically trained performers is disposable.

His friend and colleague Tim Hodgkinson, former Henry Cow reed player, put it well: “Dumitrescu’s music is not a convolution in the knot of modern music, but an unravelling of the curse.” And against the stacked odds of having to write his music under the ears of a totalitarian regime – and the New Music mainstream – Dumitrescu has scored a stunning coup: this music needs to exist. No question.

Attempts to position his work inside an existing lineage are ultimately a distraction, telling you little about the vitality of his soundworld. 

Dumitrescu himself – emailing back meticulously considered responses to my questions from his Bucharest home, with supplementary answers from his wife, the composer and pianist Ana-Maria Avram – is happy to place his music “inside the space that also gave birth to Enescu, Bartók, Xenakis, Ligeti, Kurtág and certainly Horatiu Radulescu” – all composers with roots in the historically jumbled borders between Romania and Hungary: each, via their distinct compositional methodologies, dealing with the flow of material around monolithic sound masses. 

But Dumitrescu is Dumitrescu is Dumitrescu.

 Click Here for the PDF:  

His music sounds like none of theirs. Nor does it resonate with the Parisian spectralist chic of Gérard Grisey or Tristan Murail, despite his embrace of the term ‘spectral composition’.

Instead, he has returned music to Edgard Varèse’s futurist manifesto for composition, analysing and organizing sound with the objectivity of a physicist, and then liberating its rude splendor like a heretic in the cathedral.

To activate sound, Dumitrescu yanks apart traditional instrumental know-how to grasp at ephemeral overtones, multiphonics and distortions airbrushed out by the standardization of conventional string and wind technique. 

Sounds are intensified by computer transformations of instrumental sources, or real-time manipulations. Percussion is raised in the mix of Dumitrescu’s inner ear, carpeting the music with sustained continuums pressed so emphatically that percussion starts to take on a harmonic function; or, conversely, ambushing his structures with febrile onslaughts that prize open new structural channels. 

Did the previous 400 years of classical tradition really happen? Dumitrescu does enough to convince you that, just perhaps, it didn’t. The resulting music has a unique violence, intensity, ecstatic noisiness that – like Xenakis or Cecil Taylor – reclaims sound through a concentration on undiluted, base sonic matter.

Workaday New Music often remains beholden to tepid patterning or – more cynically – to rigid fundamentals that, however ‘out’ the music becomes, exist as a harmonic safety curtain. But the principal fundamental in Dumitrescu’s music is the instability of his sounds.

Instruments are moved beyond their idiomatic comfort zone to a place where they become unstable, leaving players in an active dialogue with sounds that are transient and wavering. The fetish of the written score is vanquished. The notes on the page – Dumitrescu’s written instructions about what and when to play – are one thing, the sounds themselves are entirely another.

Dumitrescu is keen to stress that his music does derive from a tradition – just not the traditional tradition. “Romania lacked both a Renaissance and a Classical period,” he writes. “But this was actually an opportunity for traditional Romanian music to be preserved, with its naturalness of sound, precise non-tempered intonations and scales. Bartók’s music and later innovations like microtones and multiphonics have roots in this ancient source with its richness and diversity of sound that seems extremely precious now.

That is why New Music has such an importance in Romania today, to compensate for the 18th and 19th centuries. But to ignore it appears even more dangerous. 

“20 years after the communist era ended,” he continues, “consequences for New Music are still felt. Romanian culture – understood by people in the UK, USA and Central Europe – is ignored here.

The National Radio in Bucharest neglected our really interesting composers for decades. This obstruction and lack of vision, an inadequacy in perceiving the future, is still prevalent. Communism failed but, sadly, communist beliefs are still in place.”

But enough about the past: “During the remaining time left in my life, I wish to address the present and the future. I wish, for once, to allow myself to live with my head in the clouds.”

The first time I heard Dumitrescu’s music on CD something unforeseen – and a bit embarrassing – happened.

A percussion piece, Multiples (I) (1971) was followed by the electronic Music For My Father (2007). Only in the midst of the electronic piece did a realization dawn that I was no longer listening to Multiples. The medium had changed, but the sound and gestural language of the music remained strikingly consistent. Percussion and academic electronic music doesn’t need to be, but often is, a graveyard for composers.

With note-on-note counterpoint and harmony largely removed from consideration, impersonal ‘shock and awe’ effect over content often results. In Dumitrescu’s case, however, his vivid structures and the perspective within the sound – an evolving foreground; a revolving chain of backgrounds; ambiguity between the two – outwit the means of production; a composer, clearly, with an unusually cultivated, über-refined sense of texture and timbre. 

“My music is unusual in being abstract, geometrical and rigorous – but also connected to philosophical and cosmological meditations,” Dumitrescu asserts, explaining his journey towards sound.

 “Because of when I was born, I fell in between two periods of worldwide recession in the arts. If the aesthetics and particular sound of my music is not yet well known, I am not responsible. Xenakis, Stockhausen, Nono and Ligeti were boosted by huge editorial efforts and a whole advertising industry – impossible to imagine today for this kind of music – and even they aren’t appreciated as they deserve. I never had those benefits.

Nevertheless, this unfriendly period was also beneficial. I was obliged to swim against the stream, to aim towards my idealistic target. That’s why you hear music with its own voice. Working in relative isolation, somehow underground, I was forced to exhaust my own adventures – both sonorous and existential – imagining wild compositional solutions, some still unheard.”

Dumitrescu identifies Pierres Sacr ées, his 1991 piece for prepared and amplified pianos, plates and metallic objects – created some 30 years after the earliest compositions in his catalogue – as the moment his ideas about distorted sound crystallized. “I wondered from what part of myself it had come,” he commented a few years later.

Composed six years afterwards, Fluxus II for tape and orchestra pushes the transcendent violence of Pierres Sacr ées further. In the opening moments, multiple string players wrench notes from the outer limits of their high registers, each voice lurching out of phase to provoke a polyphony of polluted sound. Underneath, double bassists attack their strings, generating a clatter like industrial chains rattling.

This sonic magma moves as a single body of sound, but stand back from the whole and your ears begin to single out inner parts itchy with microscopic life. It’s an archetypal Dumitrescu experience, and one performed with a rude physicality rare in classical performance by The Romanian National Symphony Orchestra (conducted by the composer) on a CD produced by Dumitrescu’s own Edition Modern label.

The stacked textures and moving parts of both Pierres Sacr ées and Fluxus II are in a perpetual state of flux, inevitably invoking the term coined during the 1970s by Horatiu Radulescu, Dumitrescu’s near-contemporary: sound plasma.

Radulescu, who left Romania for Paris in the late 1960s, is the link between Dumitrescu and French spectralism. The two composers became close friends during their formative years of study together at the Romanian National Academy of Music, and developed their own individual voices around an emerging idea.

The classical protocol of melody, harmony and rhythm was to be dissolved and, through analysis of the harmonic series, upper partials were isolated and developed into spectra that would become the raw material of composition. In Fluxus II, there’s an ear catching moment as the crest of the frenetic sonic wave breaks, thrusting the listener towards a jolting stasis.

After the ‘wide angle’ aperture of what went before – the complex spectrum viewed from a distance – this static soliloquy is a deliberate, lingering viewpoint on a smaller particle of the whole.

“Spectralism is not just a trend but a specific attitude towards sound,” Ana-Maria Avram elucidates, filling in details about the affiliation between her husband’s (and her own) music and spectral theory.

“There isn’t one spectral approach, but many different viewpoints. Radulescu’s sound plasma, the music of the French spectralists and our music are often defined as post-spectral or hyperspectral: but above anything it is transformational music.”

Then she dives deeper into the spectral eddy:

“There are two aspects of sound which operate together in our music. The first is the dramatic character of sound – the very implication of sound that comes from the sound matter itself.

The second aspect is how those sounds are transformed. Let me explain: one of the main challenges of composing is to construct musical form. But working with timbre and colour as the primary material quickly presents a problem – timbre is a transitory phenomenon: noise, too, is transitory and ‘classical’ thinking dictates it must be removed before sound can be precisely reiterated.

But the essential contradiction that spectral composers work with is that, without noise, we cannot have timbre! On instruments, we aim to play transitory phenomena – distorted overtones, multiphonics et al, the seemingly unrepeatable – in the act of building form and a consistent musical universe.

If spectral material cannot be approached with structuralist tools, it certainly can be exploited in a transformational manner.”

She views their work with electronics, too, as fundamentally about transformation and the repositioning of familiar sound sources. “I particularly love old Moogs because the sound is very unstable; almost no sound one has found before can be repeated – the tiniest change of a button leads to a very different result. I feel increasingly sad about the evolution of software.

The newest programs are less interesting, more standard, which leads to similar results for everyone. So we use obscure and old software, often abandoned by their creators, sometimes just to exploit one interesting little thing it can do well.”

After the theory, now those philosophical and cosmological meditations. Dumitrescu has often told of the moment he chanced upon the potency of sound. During military service – compulsory in Romania – he was dispatched to guard a military flag on a barren mountainside late at night. 

In a desperate attempt to stay awake and avoid being caught napping by his superiors, he walked through the darkness, tapping on objects to see if they made a sound. His fingers found a large sheet of glass suspended from wires.

He liked the sound it made and ‘played’ it like an instrument.

Then he fell asleep. “I’ve no idea how long I slept,” Dumitrescu told Tim Hodgkinson in 1997, “but whilst I slept I had a kind of cataclysmic explosion inside my head as if a thousand glass plates were falling and bursting at once. I wasn’t observing the plates falling from outside; I was inside them falling and exploding, I was inside the sound.

 This dream perhaps lasted two or three seconds, but the explosion lasted an eternity, a lifetime, like a 20 minute piece of music. I was in the centre of this explosion with a vast detail of sound, but also vast force.”

This dream sequence expresses many dimensions of sound. The illusory, hyped-up reality of sound experienced in the subconscious when dreaming, put against the concrete reality of a sound that Dumitrescu’s fingers stumbled upon under pressured and slightly surreal circumstances.

He remains obsessed with multi-dimensional sound – sound as experienced by a listener distinct from the cold reality of sound as it is produced.

Acousmatic illusion, in other words. These ideas flow into the core of musical phenomenology, a philosophical attitude to sound that remains central to Dumitrescu’s thinking.

During his studies at the Romanian National Academy of Music, Dumitrescu had a primer in how musical material might be organized differently from conventional tonal music.

His teacher, Alfred Mendelssohn, risked severe punishment by showing his pupils scores by Schoenberg and Webern that contradicted the party line and were strictly verboten. Then, in 1973, came the major breakthrough when Dumitrescu met Sergiu Celibidache.

He studied conducting and philosophy with the extraordinary Romanian, who was appointed principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945, and who fused ideas about classical music with Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of phenomenology. Many Dumitrescu ideas have their roots in Celibidache’s belief that classical music ought to provoke transcendent experiences.

He famously rejected offers to record his remarkable performances of Bruckner, Beethoven and Brahms on the grounds that records were “transcriptions of performances”. Without the physical dimensions of the hall, or the atmosphere of experiencing the sound, Celibidache reckoned there was no point. He was, truly, a ‘sound’ bloke. 

“Celibidache was not only a huge musician but a profound philosopher,” Dumitrescu remembers. “He was formed by pre-war Romania, which was a forward looking artistic country – think of the dada movement, Eugene Ionesco and other musicians like Enescu and Dinu Lipatti. He appeared in my life when I was a near failure. I was overwhelmed by the system, feeling stuck in a limited space from which I couldn’t advance. I lacked oxygen.

Celibidache gave me the confidence of self-improvement that moved me beyond the hostile environment. He taught me how to control and direct my sonic experiences, how to focus my imagination and organize my endeavors to reach my artistic goals through musical phenomenology.

As mathematics and architecture were Xenakis’s engine of creation, phenomenology became how I could envisage a set of sonic events. It gave me a coherent musical doctrine, opening my mind to acousmatic and spectral possibilities. Now I was equipped to go further into musical realities I had foreseen.”

Phenomenology – as developed by the Moravian philosopher Edmund Husserl during the first two decades of the 20th century – is the philosophy of making the subjective objective: or, more precisely, creating methods through which phenomena normally regarded as subjective can be made to seem objective. 

Husserl based his work around concepts of consciousness, and Dumitrescu’s lifelong project to create concrete structures from transitory sounds is the philosophy manifested in music.

“Sound by itself is still not yet music,” he contemplates. “Of course, you can’t imagine music without sound, but to attempt music you need to transcend reality through a volatile, superior reality, filled with new meanings and directions. Musical phenomenology helps to obtain this genuine state. Sometimes there are periods of invention, of important discoveries, which have to be developed.

Huge and directed concentration is needed on what can be a tiny surface of sound. At other times, it isn’t about innovation but accumulation of ideas already learnt. This process of finding sounds – precious sounds, full of interest – is the most important part of my creation.

There are rare times when fabulous, unheard-of sounds instantly create the shape of the whole musical development in a piece. Pierres Sacr ées is one such piece; Galaxy, Medium II and CogitoTrompe L’Oeil are other examples where phenomenolgy opened up a conceptual perspective, where sonorous energies become convergent, and everything grew naturally and organically.”

Dumitrescu also cites the work of Bucharest-born philosopher Stéphane Lupasco (1900–88), who espoused the “dynamic logic of contradiction”, as offering him a route forward, towards “new spaces beyond where natural sound can let us advance.

After Lupasco, the reality of these contradictions generate a yet unseen complexity. Fusing what I already know about phenomenology with Lupasco’s principle of the dynamic evolution of contradiction offer a new direction, when composition seems to have lost all its discursive possibilities.”

And after the philosophy, the tough, hard-knock realities of existing as a composer. If Dumitrescu and Avram have composed a visionary world of their own, they have also needed to make hard-nosed, pragmatic decisions about the performance and distribution of their music.

Their Edition Modern label – distributed in the UK by drummer Chris Cutler’s ReR Megacorp organization – documents an exhilarating variety of their work over some 24 – and rising – CDs in no-nonsense packaging, very often live performances culled from the concert hall that retain something of a ‘being there’ intensity. Sergiu Celibidache might have even approved. 

Edition Modern is where you go to hear those mighty-oak performances of Pierres Sacr ées and Fluxus II: Galaxy; the solo double bass Medium II and Cogito/Trope L’Oeil for two double basses, prepared piano, Javanese gong and metal objects are also documented here, alongside enough ensemble, instrumental and electronic music to last a lifetime.

 Total immersion in Dumitrescu’s music suggests he is one of those composers (like Xenakis, unlike Ligeti) for whom every titled work is essentially another facet of the same ongoing piece – a marrow of convictions with an infinite variety of permutations and tributaries. 

In 1976, Dumitrescu founded what would prove the most significant part of his self-generated infrastructure when he brought together a body of musicians as The Hyperion Ensemble.

The ensemble gave their first performance in the UK in 1997, and will appear again this month in London at Spectrum XXI, a festival dedicated to Dumitrescu’s and Avram’s music. Forming ensembles is what composers who write against the grain of how classical musicians normally operate invariably end up doing.

The group bring together interested classical players from Romanian orchestras – devoted enough to rise to Dumitrescu’s technical challenges – students and other fellow travelers from Central Europe.

At one point in their history, they also managed to incorporate an amateur rock drummer. “He couldn’t read notes,” Dumitrescu once said, “but he was an extraordinary and talented player.”

Hyperion has also allowed Dumitrescu to conceive music for sound sources outside the usual classical box: metallic plates, crystals, brittle metal objects and the so-called ‘harryphone’, a part acoustic, part electronic percussion hybrid of his own invention.

The dream of floating inside the sound of suspended glass and wires wakes up in music. The ensemble trash the old chain of command between composer and instrumentalists: Dumitrescu and Avram view the ensemble as a living workshop, a constant source of ideas and sounds.

“During the 1980s censorship was still operating efficiently in literature, cinema and in the visual arts,” Avram recalls. “In music to even be allowed to have your music played, the score had to be submitted to the Symphonic Bureau of the Composer’s Union jury, who could refuse permission – even a verdict.

Then no ensemble or orchestra was allowed to perform your piece in public, or record it. It was difficult to travel abroad and have a dialogue with other composers. No promotion was available.

“Therefore Hyperion has been essential to the development of our music, allowing us to hear sounds that would otherwise merely be theory. Also with Hyperion, we practice directed, conducted improvisation, different from the general approach of other experimental improvisational groups.  

The sound material is defined as either being concrete, or something more open. In the process of conducting, the sound is moved towards climaxes, tensions and moments of stagnation: in fact, towards structure.

A particular form results where coherence and freedom coexist. Improvisation could be defined as ‘rapid’ composition – in contrast to ‘slow’ composition on paper – but that does not mean unstructured improvisation, without development or process. Spiritually, we practice together how not to confuse the sound and the note, the music and the score.”

Dumitrescu comes back with a final email in which he writes enthusiastically about the potential of improvisation – active, listening playing – as injecting a lifeforce into a New Music scene he perceives as often lacking in authentic inspiration. Not gerrymandered communism, but true collective thinking.

Improvisation is being instantly inspired! Without inspiration, our skill remains sad and inconsistent. In physics, scientists discover unique, inspiring moments, but in new composition has this way of transcending matter dried up? Improvisation can be a training for composing, but composition must concentrate on immutable surfaces. Intuitive discoveries have to be clarified.

You have to find the tools through which the unheard can become obtained. The composer is, anyway, in a permanent trade-off and negotiation between improvisation and solidity.

When you mentioned improvisation, I recalled my own questions on the aura of sound; chaos; instability; atmospheric storms; dispersions; contrasts. I think about global structures in perpetual movement. Those are the problems I solve through composition.

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